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Wine: Prices | Labels | Varietals | Stories | Links

Wine varietals: A glossary

(CNN) -- Walk into a wine shop, and you'll get an idea of how many kinds of wine there are. Wines are defined by the grapes from which they are made. For example, a champagne and a cabernet sauvignon are made from two different kinds of grapes. Each type of wine, or varietal, takes the name of the grape variety from which they were produced. Wines must be made up of at least 75 percent of a particular grape variety to carry the varietals name.

Here are some brief definitions of wine types and varietals:

Choose One:
  • Aperitifs
  • Barbera
  • Blush Wines
  • Brunello
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Champagne/Sparkling Wine
  • Chardonnay
  • Chenin Blanc
  • Dolcetto
  • Dessert Wines
  • French Colombard
  • Fume Blanc
  • Gewurztraminer
  • Grenache
  • Marsanne
  • Merlot
  • Mourvedre
  • Muscat
  • Nebbiolo
  • Petite Sirah
  • Pinot Blanc
  • Pinot Gris
  • Pinot Noir
  • Pinotage
  • Red Wines
  • Riesling
  • Roses
  • Sangiovese
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Semillon
  • Syrah
  • Table Wines
  • White Wines
  • Viognier
  • Zinfandel
    • Aperitifs - Aperitifs, or appetizer wines, are generally served before meals. Champagne and sherries are traditional aperitifs, and light white wine is also appropriate.

      Barbera - Barbera is a red wine grape found primarily in Italy's Piedmont region. It produces bright, crisp wines with deep ruby colors, full body and low tannin levels.

      Blush Wines (Rosés) - Blush wines, also called rosés, are light pink wines made from several red wine grapes. They get their color from a very short period of contact with the grape skins during the wine-making process. Blush wines are light and usually have some sweetness.

      Brunello (Sangiovese Grosso) - This is one of two strains of the red, Sangiovese grape. It's bigger and much more rare than its cousin, Sangiovese Piccolo. Brunello is the grape behind Brunello di Montalcino, a luscious and long-aging red wine from Italy's Tuscany region.

      Cabernet Sauvignon - Cabernet Sauvignon is a red wine known for its depth of flavor, aroma and ability to age. It is full-bodied and intense, with cherry- currant and sometimes herbal flavors. Cabernet Sauvignon may have noticeable tannins.

      Champagne/Sparkling Wine - These wines are made effervescent in the wine-making process. Champagnes and sparkling wines range in style from very dry (Natural), dry (brut) and slightly sweet (extra Dry) to sweet (sec and Demi-Sec). Many sparkling wines are also identified as Blanc de Blancs (wines made from white grapes) or Blanc de Noirs (wines produced from red grapes).

      Chardonnay - Chardonnay is a white wine which can range from clean and crisp with a hint of varietal flavor to rich and complex oak-aged wines. Chardonnay typically balances fruit, acidity and texture.

      Chenin Blanc -- Chenin Blanc is a white wine with fresh, delicate floral characteristics. It grows well in warmer climates and produces light, well- balanced wines ranging from dry to off-dry (slightly sweet) styles.

      Dolcetto - This red wine grape is found almost exclusively in Italy's Piedmont region. It produces soft, purple and fruity wines with fragrances resembling licorice and almonds. Dolcetto is best enjoyed one to three years after harvest.

      Dessert Wines - Dessert wines are usually served with or in place of dessert, and can be sweet or dry. Dessert wines are officially classified as having an alcohol content of between 17 and 21 percent. Sherry, wines made from the Muscat grape family, Tokay and Port (available in a range of styles based on sweetness and time aged in wood). Late-harvest varietals are not officially termed dessert wines, but are increasingly popular in this role.

      French Colombard - French Colombard is a white wine which is generally light and off-dry (slightly sweet). It is the most widely planted varietal in California.

      Fume Blanc - Fume Blanc is a white wine best known for its grassy, herbal flavors. Fume Blanc is also called Sauvignon Blanc, and is a popular choice for fish and shellfish dishes.

      Gewurztraminer - Gewurztraminer is a white wine that produces distinctive wines rich in spicy aromas and full flavors, ranging from dry to sweet. This varietal is a popular choice for Asian cuisines and pork-based sausages.

      Grenache - Grenache is a red wine grape that produces fruity, spicy wines with medium body and tannins. It also can show a lighter side when it's turned into Rose.

      Marsanne - This grape can produce rich white wines with flavors resembling pears, citrus and nuts.

      Merlot - Merlot is a red wine with medium to full body and herbaceous flavors. Merlot is typically softer in taste than Cabernet Sauvignon.

      Mourvedre (Mataro) - This warm-weather, red wine grape can turn into pleasant medium-weight wines with cherry and berry flavors. It goes by the name Mourvedre in France. In California and Australia, it's often called Mataro.

      Muscat - The white Muscat grape produces spicy, floral wines that often do something most other wines don't: they actually taste like grapes. Muscats can range from very dry and fresh to sweet and syrupy.

      Nebbiolo - This is the great red variety of Italy's Piedmont region. At its best, Nebbiolo produces strong, long-aging wines with depth and character.

      Petite Sirah - Petite Sirahs are red wines with firm, robust tannic tastes, often with peppery flavors. Petite Sirahs may complement meals with rich meats.

      Pinot Blanc (Pinot Bianco) - Some people call Pinot Blanc the poor man's Chardonnay because both grapes produce similar flavors and textures. Pinot Blancs are often clear and intense with hints of fruit and honey.

      Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio) - The low acidity of this white grape helps produce rich, lightly perfumed wines that are often more colorful than other whites.

      Pinot Noir - Pinot Noir is a red wine of light to medium body and delicate, smooth, rich complexity. The Pinot Noir grape is one of the most challenging wine grapes to bring to full potential.

      Pinotage - Pinotage is a red hybrid grape that's gained its greatest acclaim in South Africa. At its best it produces big, plummy wines with a lot of character.

      Red Wines - Red wines are usually dry and have some tannic astringency. They gain their color during the wine-making process, through the extraction of pigments from the skins of red wine grapes. Reds may be aged in wood for depth and complexity, or produced in light, fruity styles. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and blush wines (roses) are red wines.

      Riesling - Rieslings are white wines known for their floral perfume. Depending on where they're made, they can be crisp and bone-dry, full-bodied and spicy or luscious and sweet.

      Roses (Blush Wines) - Roses, also called blush wines, are light pink wines made from several red wine grapes. They get their color from a very short period of contact with the grape skins during the wine-making process. Roses are light and usually have some sweetness.

      Sangiovese (Sangiovese Piccolo) - Sangiovese is best known as the grape behind the Italian red wine, Chianti. It often boasts a distinctively smooth texture topped with spice, raspberry and licorice flavors.

      Sauvignon Blanc - Sauvignon Blanc is a white wine best known for its grassy, herbal flavors. Sauvignon Blanc is also called Fume Blanc, and is a popular choice for fish and shellfish dishes.

      Semillon - The white Semillon grape reaches its pinnacle in sweet, honeyed wines such as the Sauternes of southwest France. Semillon is often blended with Sauvignon Blanc and sometimes with Chardonnay.

      Syrah (Shiraz) - Syrah can produce monumental red wines with strong tannins and complex combinations of flavors including berry, plum and smoke. It's known as Shiraz mainly in Australia and South Africa.

      Table Wines - Table wines include red, white, blush (rose) wines containing from seven to foutreen percent alcohol and are still, rather than effervescent. Table wines can be made from any grape or combination of grapes in any style a vintner chooses. Table wines may carry varietal names or names describing the color (for example, blush) or region (such as Chablis) or a name coined by the winery.

      White Wines - White wines can range in style from bone dry to sweet. Some are aged in oak, while others are kept out of wood. Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, French Colombard, Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc are all white wines.

      Viognier - Viognier is a rare white grape that's difficult to grow. Fans of this variety enjoy its peachy, apricotty and sometimes spicy flavors.

      Zinfandel - Zinfandel is a red wine with light to full body and berry-like or spicy flavors. The Zinfandel grape is also widely used in the popular off-dry blush wine known as White Zinfandel.

    Karen MacNeil, wine writer and author of the upcoming book, The Wine Primer, has trained thousands of chefs and waiters in understanding wine. She found if she told her students that, for example, a wine had high alcohol content, high acidity and good body, the students had a hard time remembering that. So, she took a different approach, describing wines in terms of personalities, using celebrities as examples.

    For instance: "You could say one wine is like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz while another is like the mature Judy Garland, or that a big voluptuous chardonnay is like Marilyn Monroe -- round, bosomy -- you can remember that chardonnay," says MacNeil. "If you say a wine is snappy and lively, like Robin Williams, that's very different than the Anthony Hopkins of wine -- urbane, sophisticated, measured, considered."

    The system works for MacNeil. "People get it immediately. It's a fun way of remembering."

    Here are some of MacNeil's wine personalities and her comments:

      Chardonnay -- Marilyn Monroe -- voluptuous, round

      Sauvignon Blanc -- Jamie Lee Curtis -- taut, sleek, a little high strung

      Riesling -- Michelle Pfieffer - nice, blond, pretty

      Gewurztraminer -- Madonna -- a wonderful white variety that's a bit off the wall, wild and unpredictable. You either like it or you don't.

      Cabernet sauvignon -- a U.N. ambassador -- extremely distinguished, tall, conservative, wears good suits

      Zinfandel -- Richard Dreyfuss -- the guy next door; friendly, open, not quite so tight and pulled together

      Pinot Noir -- Ingrid Bergman -- very sensual, graceful

      Gamay (the grape that makes beaujolais) -- Peewee Herman (pre-arrest) -- a silly little grape, kind of funny, kind of dorky.

    Wine: Prices | Labels | Varietals | Stories | Links

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